(Courtesy of JNF) On Thursday night, March 9, the Jewish National Fund (JNF-USA) hosted a panel discussion headlined by former New York Mets and New York Yankees star Darryl Strawberry. Among his many accolades, Strawberry was awarded the 1983 Rookie of the Year award, he was elected to the All-Star Game eight times, he was a four-time World Series champion (in 1986 with the Mets, and then 1996, 1998 and 1999 with the Yankees) and he is a New York Mets hall of famer. Since his baseball career ended, Darryl became a preacher who travels the world inspiring others to become the best possible versions of themselves. He has also been a very vocal supporter of the Jewish people and the State of Israel.
Also joining this panel was Manav Tilwani, a Baruch College student who participated in the JNF Caravan For Democracy Student Leadership Mission and Tiffany Henley, a Pace University professor who recently returned from the JNF Faculty Fellowship Program in Israel. The panel was moderated by Rabbi Avi Rosalimsky, rebbe in Yeshivat Noam and pro-Israel activist. The event was chaired by Stacey and Nelson Braff.
The goal of this panel was to discuss the importance of empowering the non-Jewish community to support Zionism and to join the fight against antisemitism. By sending non-Jewish student leaders and university professors on fully subsidized trips to Israel, the JNF’s Caravan for Democracy and Faculty Fellowship programs currently play a major role in shaping this narrative. Their ultimate goal is to facilitate constructive dialogue about Israel on college campuses and across America.
The panel discussion began with Tilwani and Henley each speaking about their respective JNF trips to Israel along with how the trips changed their perspective on what Israel is all about. Among other things, Tilwani said that his family and friends were concerned for his safety prior to his visit. But he said that when he was actually in Israel he never felt concern for his safety. Henley explained that her faith was a big motivation behind seeing the Land of Israel for herself. She loved visiting Israel and seeing all of the wonderful parts of the country that she had read about for so long. She also mentioned that her favorite part of visiting Israel was meeting the Israelis and seeing the Israelis and Palestinians living side by side in Jerusalem. This experience changed her perspective on thinking that the Palestinians were treated as second class citizens in Israel.
When the conversation turned to Strawberry, he began by discussing the challenging upbringing that he had with an abusive, alcoholic father and then his struggles with drugs and alcohol as he continued into adulthood. He explained that his many hardships ultimately made him into the person he is today, spending his life as a preacher, devoted to helping others maximize their potential despite the challenges that they face. Rabbi Rosalimsky asked Strawberry if perhaps his affinity towards Israel might stem from his ability to relate to it. Rabbi Rosalimsky suggested that perhaps the fact that just like Strawberry is a living miracle who had been through many challenges but has come out stronger as a result of them, so too, Israel is a miraculous country that has become a strong, vibrant democracy despite (or even because of) the many challenges that it has faced over the years. Strawberry agreed wholeheartedly with this comparison.
Strawberry then spoke about his own trip to Israel in 2018 and the life-changing experience that he had being in Israel for the first time. “What an incredible place!” he remarked. He also discussed his spiritual connections to Israel and to the Jewish people and the importance of educating the general population about Israel, its people and its history. He said that those who speak negatively about Israel or Jews are almost always doing so out of complete ignorance, without ever having actually visited Israel or met Jews. “As a non-Jewish person, I think the most important thing is [that] you have to be able to educate them about Israel. I think that in this country, a lot of people talk about Israel and talk about the Jewish people, but they’ve never been there. So they don’t even have a clue,” he remarked.
When asked by Rabbi Rosalimsky about what inspired his love for Israel and the Jewish people, Strawberry said, “What I know is that the Jews have had a long history of suffering and as an African American, I can relate to that. The question for me is, will I be a leader or a follower? I want to be a leader on this issue because it’s the right thing to do, even if I’m standing alone. Also, when I was struggling with my addictions, the Jews who I knew never turned their backs on me. I can’t say that about many people. I was taught by my Jewish friends what it means to truly show someone unconditional love without any strings attached.”
Towards the end of the panel, the panelists were asked what the Jewish community can do to better empower non-Jews to support Israel. The response from the panelists was unwavering and unanimous. They explained that community engagement is key. Firstly, by engaging and educating the non-Jewish community on Israel (such as through JNF’s trips to Israel), it allows non-Jews to truly understand the existential challenges that Israel faces on a daily basis, coupled with the multitude of rights that Palestinians are afforded in Israel. Secondly, they explained that it’s easy to be antisemitic when one doesn’t know any Jews. Therefore,
community engagement personalizes the Jews to the broader community, thereby showing the world what the Jewish people are really all about.
Rabbi Rosalimsky concluded the panel by thanking the panelists for their devotion to Israel and the Jewish people. And he remarked (on the heels of Purim) that the climax of Megilat Esther was when Mordechai said to Esther, “Who knows if it was for this moment (to save the Jewish people) that you became Queen.” Based on this, he asked Strawberry a similarly rhetorical question: “Who knows if it is for the support of Israel and the Jewish people that God allowed you to become a successful athlete with such a large platform?” Once again, Strawberry wholeheartedly agreed.
To quote the event chair, Nelson Braff, “Darryl Strawberry was an excellent baseball player, but it was only after his career that he truly became a star.”